The Archive (a Birthday Present to Myself)

I’ve often presented my photographic work in discrete projects that fit a category such as portraiture, digital photomontage, social documentary, etc that deal with specific themes, times, places, and concepts, as expected by a photographic art world in which I’ve been professionally immersed these last couple of decades. This strategy has earned me at least a little success in this world, allowing my photographs to be featured in a variety of exhibitions in established galleries, art centers, and educational institutions. Seeing my work displayed as art in this elevated context has been gratifying, but something about this fragmented approach has never felt honest to me, as it doesn’t really reflect the true nature of my practice in the medium of photography. These seemingly discrete projects have actually been drawn from a much broader archive of photographs that I’ve quietly been assembling for years, a body of work that has of yet evaded my attempts to categorize or theorize.

My working method is to always have a camera on hand, and to photograph the scenes that I encounter while going about my daily life. Sometimes I venture out specifically to make images, but rarely do I preconceptualize the kinds of pictures I will make. The practice is purely photographic, preceding the intervention of conscious thought or theory, relying instead on instinct and reaction, and embracing the gifts of chance and serendipity as I navigate the world around me. I established this practice in my early days as a photographer, even before high school, although the logistic and financial limitations of shooting film limited its comprehensiveness. Once digital cameras became available, this method has become more of a constant practice and obsession. For the last several years I have rarely ventured from my home without a camera, loaded, charged, and ready to shoot. Mindful of the tolerance and privacy of my companions on this journey through life, I don’t necessarily attempt to capture images of everything that happens to me, or even the most significant moments with friends and acquaintances, although this sometimes happens too, but rather tend to make pictures of the random moments in transit, taken on walks, drives, bicycle outings, and now even from my skateboard, as I assimilate yet another mode of transport into my daily routines. I often have no specific connection to the scenes thus depicted, other than they reflect my view from where my temporal journey meets the plane of the visual matrix of the world at the time and place I am able to make an exposure with my camera, creating a document of my unique intersection with the flow of life, that uncritically records whatever and whomever happens to be in view of the lens. As I build this web of imagery, and stay in a location for longer periods of time, these images sometimes gain significance as the random scenes and locations become familiar as my home.

I know that this habit arises from my life’s frequent geographic and cultural relocations, as I have both voluntarily and involuntarily led a somewhat rootless and nomadic existence in this journey on the Earth from my very infancy. My father emigrated from India to England at the age of 17, where he met my mother. Shortly after my birth, they immigrated to Canada, in search of a society that might better accept them as a mixed race couple, and me as a mixed race child than the segregated Great Britain of the 1960’s. Only a few months later, opportunity for a better job for my father drew our young family to the United States, right around the time when this country’s archaic laws banning the practice of “miscegenation” were finally relaxed, making my very existence no longer illegal on American soil. This moment was commemorated with a blurry picture of my drooling infant face on a plastic laminated Green Card. From that point, my father’s restless search for career and a home to raise the family took us to a new house and new town at least every two years all throughout my childhood and youth. As a result of this unsettled upbringing, I was constantly the new kid in town, born of two different, and often opposing cultures, races, and countries, while attempting to make a life in a third. My parents were supportive, nurturing, and as involved in my life as they possibly could have been, as overwhelmed as they also were in finding their own ways in this foreign land, but ultimately, their expectations of me often conflicted, and created confusion in my mind as I tried to negotiate their foreigners’ customs with the cultural norms of various suburban America schools of the 70’s and 80’s, where I was often the only minority or mixed race student. Finding my own way in the world of yet another new place with the various regional cultures I encountered outside our home in a succession of schools, regions, towns and states, I developed the habit of observing the world around me in an attempt to make sense of my constantly shifting social and physical environment through the evidence of my eyes, since the usual clues of social integration and engagement were often hidden from me as a raw outsider to so many different settings and situations. Somewhere along the way I picked up a camera to assist me in this task. The use of photography to document this odyssey through time and space grew into an artistic practice as I engaged with the medium in the course of studying the fine arts in college.

This visual exploration of my surroundings always seems to accelerate as I venture into a new place to live. Moving to Fresno, California has been no different. It’s been enormously exciting to explore this new region, even as I go about mundane errands to and from work, collecting groceries, or simply going out to exercise and getting to know my way around this new environment. I don’t know if these images are good, bad, boring, or interesting, nor have I been able to theorize a rationale, aesthetic standard, or categorization that would enable me to define a coherent photographic practice that could incorporate the scope of this body of work as a whole. Clearly this work lives partially in the tradition of what’s been labeled “Street Photography”, but the images are not exclusively that, as they include many pictures that break the generally accepted parameters of the genre.

The sum of this photographic archive has long ago grown so massive that it would be impossible to publish in its entirety by means of any conventional mode of presentation, even if edited by whatever criteria down to only the “good” pictures. Consequently, other than recently in the random decontextualized virtual space of image sharing services such as Instagram or Flickr, I’ve not presented this work as a sort of exhibition, portfolio, book, or any other formal creative body of work, preferring to extract from it discrete elements that better fit into established modes of the medium. I’m beginning to feel however, that I should simply embrace this practice as the way I process my encounter with the world, and leave it for others to categorize, if they see fit.

The images shown here are some of those that I made on my birthday this year, a small collection of random, discrete moments plucked from a particular day in the steam of my visual consciousness as I commence another lap surfing on the surface of the Earth in its journey around the sun, a birthday present to myself and whoever else cares to share the particular view out of the windows of my eyes and lens as we spin together through the cosmos. Make of them what you will, and if our paths ever cross, I hope you won’t mind if I take your picture.

Posted by scoopneil

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